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former IAEA Director-General

Drone Proliferation Tests Arms Control
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Jefferson Morley

As the U.S. government winds up an interagency review of rules governing the export of large drones, the conflicting goals of nonproliferation and commerce are creating a new test of the 27-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Observers do not expect big changes to the MTCR, which seeks to prevent the proliferation of unmanned systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction. The MTCR, a voluntary arrangement that now includes 34 countries, originally was intended to curb the spread of ballistic missiles and unmanned vehicles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. In 1993 it was amended to control systems carrying any weapons of mass destruction. It has become Washington’s chief tool for controlling the spread of armed drones.

“It’s quite unlikely that we will see any radical change in the MTCR,” Eric McClafferty, an attorney at Kelley Drye and Warren, a law firm in Washington that represents UAV manufacturers, said in a March 19 interview. “That said, there’s a lot of pressure on the U.S. government to liberalize controls to make sure the U.S. doesn’t get left behind in this market.”

The conflict has played out in a series of closed-door meetings over the last two months among the State, Defense, and Commerce departments as officials seek to update U.S. policy toward the burgeoning UAV market. Industry representatives have made their views known via technical committees that advise policymakers in these departments.

“It’s a pretty contentious fight” between the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation and the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration, said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a March 17 interview. The State Department says that “if you pull at the thread of MTCR, you will weaken the nonproliferation regime as a whole. The other side says the international market is going to supply these UAVs anyway,” Zenko said.

The heart of the issue is what kind of UAVs U.S. manufacturers can sell overseas. The MTCR imposes a “presumption of denial” for the export of so-called Category 1 UAV’s, which are drones that can travel more than 300 kilometers with a payload of more than 500 kilograms. Drones that do not have those capabilities are classified as Category 2 UAVs and are not subject to such restrictive criteria.

Two drones currently classified as Category 1—the Reaper, formerly known as the Predator, and the Global Hawk—have played a central role in U.S. aerial attacks on suspected Islamic militants in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Washington has approved the sale of an armed drone to only one country, the United Kingdom, although unarmed versions of these drones have been sold to Italy and South Korea.

The stakes of the MTCR review process are large politically and economically, observers say.

“UAVs makes the use of lethal force easier,” Zenko said. “We did 375 drone strikes in Pakistan. We never would have done 375 manned aircraft missions or 375 Special Forces operations.” Independent observers say many civilians were killed in those strikes.

The proliferation of armed drones to other countries could lead to more attacks on civilians and more armed conflict, and, if the drones fell into the wrong hands, could pose a threat to U.S. security, arms control advocates say.

In November, the German government suspended plans to acquire armed drones. In a public statement, the government said, “We categorically reject illegal killings by drones. Germany will support the use of unmanned weapons systems for the purposes of international disarmament and arms control.”

Although governments and policymakers worry about the consequences of drone proliferation, U.S. manufacturers look forward to new opportunities for business.

The global market for high- and medium-altitude UAVs, which include Category 1 drones, was worth $2.2 billion in 2013, according to Phil Finnegan, senior analyst at the Teal Group, which monitors the defense industry. The Teal Group projects that these types of drones will generate $24.9 billion in business over the next 10 years.

The United States and Israel now dominate the large-drone export market, but other countries are marketing or developing UAVs with similar capabilities, Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said in a March 19 interview.

“The Chinese have developed a drone like a Predator. The exact capability is unclear, but they are definitely interested,” Wezeman said. “The French, Spanish, and Swedes have a consortium that is considering building this kind of UAV. The British have a design, and the Russians have shown a mock-up of a similar system.”

U.S. manufacturers have responded by seeking changes to the definition of Category 1 or by modifying Category 1 drones by reducing their payload under 500 kilograms and changing their design so that they cannot be weaponized. Industry representatives say they need liberalization of the MTCR rules to stay competitive.

“A lot of people feel that these markets are starting to close out, that foreign competition is going to capture market share,” McClafferty said.

The solution is not to relax the criteria for export, but to persuade other drone-producing countries to join the MTCR, Dennis Gormley, professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a March 15 interview.

He emphasized the importance of getting China to join the MTCR. Beijing has pledged to adhere to the MTCR, but has not formally signed on to its terms. Becoming a full member of the MTCR would commit China to establishing the same export control processes that other signatory countries have.

“It is in our interest to bolster the capacity of China and other governments to monitor the changes in the market,” Gormley said.

Gormley disputed claims that the MTCR hurts the U.S. manufacturers, saying only two companies produce Category 1 drones: General Atomics, which sells the Reaper, and Northrop Grumman, which sells the Global Hawk. These large UAVs only account for 2 percent of the global UAV market, Gormley said. Continuing to limit the sales of Category 1 drones, he said, “is not going to have a big impact on America’s industrial base.”

The completion of the interagency review process, expected later this year, will not end the challenges facing the MTCR, Zenko said.

“The Obama administration recognizes that UAVs are a distinct platform that has destabilizing possibilities,” he said. Given the rapid evolution of drone technology, the United States “has a shrinking window to shape international norms.”


The original version of this article incorrectly reported the year when the MTCR covered unmanned aerial vehicles. It was 1987.

Posted: April 1, 2014